The Ghost of Christmas Past inspired short story: The Gift
by Dorlana Vann
At first Cynthia was afraid to look out the window. She was afraid she would see the ghostly figure out by the horses again, stirring them up, making them run and complain. But she was expecting someone; she had to look.
The speck of hope that the person riding up the path was her husband immediately died away. The man hunched over and rode at a steady pace, like he had all the time in the world. The sudden ominous sorrow she felt was overwhelming.
Cynthia moved away from the window and began removing the supper dishes from the table. As soon as she had set them down, a loud knocking erupted. She smoothed her dress and touched her hair, wishing she had put it up instead of the bowls, and opened the door.
The stranger’s head was down, showing the top of his brown hat. He was tall and broad shouldered and dirty. Pistols hung on both sides of his hips. When he raised his head, the smell of whiskey came with each noisy breath. He squinted into the light. “Ma’am, I’m looking for Tommy Two Shot.”
“Thomas isn’t here.”
The man frowned and then spit out the side of his mouth, saliva hitting the porch. “Is that so? Well then, when ya expecting him?”
The only reason she didn’t reconsider her decision to ask for his help was because she was more afraid of the ghost than she was of the stranger. Besides, no one, who knew Tommy, would dare harm his wife. “Mr. Stockton? I’m Mrs. Thomas Garrison. I’m the one who sent for you. Please, come in.”
He wiped his feet, removed his hat and walked into the house but didn’t stop very far past the door. He cautiously examined the room, looking to the fireplace, table, and chairs.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Mary and Annie ran into the room but stopped when they saw the stranger.
A flush of embarrassment raced up Cynthia’s face. “No girls. It’s a friend of your Father’s.”
Mr. Stockton asked, “Where is ol’ Tommy Two—”
“We don’t use that name in our home,” Cynthia said quickly.
He glanced at the girls and nodded. “My mistake ma’am. I mean, where is Mr. Garrison?”
“Girls, go on back to bed now. Annie, help your sister.”
The girls did as they were told and soon Cynthia was alone with the stranger. “Please have a seat.”
When the man sat down, his guns clanked against the chair.
“I’m going to get straight to the point, Mr. Stockton.” She placed a kettle into the fire, moving a stocking that hung from the mantle out of her way. “I have a problem. You see, after my husband left on a business trip…”
“… I’ve had a visitor that I need to get rid of.”
“Killin’ ain’t my specialty.”
“I know.” She turned around and peered at the filthy man who sat across from her. She considered her words carefully, but at the last minute decided it wasn’t the time to beat around the bush. “I don’t need a killer. My husband told me what you do. I need someone who can get rid of a ghost.”
“He told you about that, huh?”
“He told me you had a special ability of some kind.”
“Are you sure it’s a ghost and not some coyote or raccoon? That’s happened before.”
“I’ve seen it out by the horses. It ain’t no coyote. It’s shaped like a man, but I can see right through it. It rattles the horses, scares them silly, and just as it turns its head to look at me… I turn away and hide. I’m afraid if it sees me it’ll come inside. I don’t want it coming inside, Mr. Stockton.” The kettle whistled, and she jumped.
“I’m not sure what your husband told you, ma’am, but I can’t get rid of the devil if that’s what you got. I’ve had a lot of folks wanting me to get rid of the devil.” He laughed and shook his head. “You see, I’m kind of what you call an interpreter. Alls I can do is listen.”
She poured him a cup of coffee and carried it to him, the coffee spilling a little from her shaky hands.
“You have a mighty fine home, Mrs. Garrison.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Real clean.”
The compliment made her feel uncomfortable. The way they lived, always on the move, they didn’t have things like other people, so there was nothing to make things untidy. Sometimes they lived in hotels in town, but it was worse when they had to stay with “friends.” She was grateful that this time they had found an old abandoned house out on the prairie—at least that was what her husband had told her. She didn’t question why it had furniture and a nice fence.
He looked around, nodding. He pointed to the fireplace with his hat. “February is a little late to still have your Christmas up.”
“Shhh. I’m waiting on Thomas so that we can have Christmas as a family,” she whispered. “The girls don’t know Christmas is over. They shouldn’t have to wait much longer. Thomas will be back any minute now.” After the stranger nodded, his eyebrow up, and clicked his tongue, Cynthia stared down at the floor—She knew he didn’t believe her, and she didn’t really have a choice but be straight with him. “I really don’t know when he’ll be back. I don’t have any money. I swear as soon as he does return…”
“A hot meal would do fine.”
Cynthia cooked. Even though she had to use the remainder of the breakfast food, she wasn’t too worried. Thomas had played it close before but always returned right before all the supplies were depleted. She smiled and thought maybe this was a sign that he would be home soon.
After Cynthia put a plate on the table in front of Mr. Stockton, he dug in like he hadn’t had a meal in a while. She turned away when he started sopping up the eggs with the biscuits, the yellow dripping down his chin as he talked. “I was given this machine by a feller down in San Francisco. Sorta payment for a debt he owed me. I’ve had it for twenty-some-odd years. It’s never failed me. It brings ‘em out all right, and I can hear ‘em. I can’t talk to ’em, but I can hear ‘em through that machine. Don’t ask me how the dang thing works, cause I don’t know.”
Cynthia wanted to believe that he would be able to help. But what he was saying seemed impossible. Perhaps it had been a mistake. Perhaps Mr. Stockton was crazier than a mad dog and what Thomas had told her about him that night had been a joke. Maybe drunk talk. She shook her head for being such a hypocrite. Most folks would probably think she was crazy, too, for seeing a ghost.
After Mr. Stockton finished his meal and after Cynthia checked on the girls, they walked outside and stood on the front porch.
Mr. Stockton walked from his horse, which was hitched to the porch, to the steps carrying a strange apparatus in his hands. It was round and made of a shiny metal. It reminded Cynthia of a compass. He pulled at a thin stick that came out of the top of it, and it seemed to grow. A strange noise resounded from the thing: a mix of frogs and unknown insects after a heavy rain.
He held it in the palm of his hand and put his arm way up high in the air, walking out into the sandy yard. “If there’s a ghost out here, this will detect it.”
She eased her way down the steps and followed him toward the fenced-in horses.
“Over here, right?” Mr. Stockton asked. “You saw it over here?”
The little machine lit up. Cynthia put her hand over her mouth and looked at Mr. Stockton.
Mr. Stockton nodded, acknowledging her unspoken question.
Like a flash of lightning on a black night, a sudden bright light shook Cynthia to the core. The figure of a man she had watched night after night through her window stood directly in front of her, but this time it was close enough that if she were to reach out, she could have touch him. And close enough that she couldn’t deny what she saw. Cynthia whimpered and her head swooned.
It was Thomas, her husband. He hadn’t come home for Christmas because he wasn’t coming home at all. He was dead.
Thomas didn’t seem to notice them. He walked by and through the gate, as if it didn’t exist. The horses began to move about. He looked over at the house and sighed. The little needle on the machine started twitching and then madly rotated around and around. His faint voice came out of the machine. “I hope this will be the last time I gotta leave y’all.” In the next instant, the ghost of Thomas (Tommy Two Shot) Garrison disappeared.
Cynthia’s body shook, her worst fear realized in that second. How many times had she worried he wouldn’t come back home? How many times had she worried he would be killed? However, mourning would have to wait. She was now the only one responsible for her family. She wiped hard at her tears, and stood tall. She pressed her lips together before clearing her throat, and through a restrained sob said, “Good bye, Thomas.”
“Are y’all going to be okay?”
“We’ll be fine.” Cynthia gave a confident nod, even though she knew living without a husband would be more difficult than living on the run with an outlaw. “Thank you, Mr. Stockton.”
Mr. Stockton climbed on his horse and tipped his hat. “Ma’am.” He rode away toward the moon, his saddlebags carrying the same as when he arrived and a trail of dust the only thing he left behind.
Cynthia knew she wouldn’t be afraid if she saw her husband’s ghost again. However, she had a feeling he had left for good, that he’d only come home long enough to give her a Christmas gift: she could stop waiting for him to return. Even though it was one a.m., she went to the room and gently shook Annie and Mary. “Wake up,” she whispered. “It’s Christmas.”